After 22 years of abortion being a legal medical procedure in WA, a Bill to create safe access zones around sexual and reproductive health clinics is currently before Parliament.
Within a 150m protected zone, The Public Health Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2020, introduced by Health Minister Roger Cook on October 14, proposes to criminalise the harassment, intimidation, threats, and interference of anyone entering or leaving these clinics.
If made law, anti-abortion demonstrators who cause distress or anxiety to the clinics’ visitors within these zones will face up to one year in prison and a $12,000 fine.
Western Australians For Safe Access Zones founder Jessica Williams said if passed, this legislation would make a bold and clear statement that the rights and safety of these clinics’ patients and staff were to be respected in WA.
In 2013, Mrs Williams had an abortion at Nanyara Clinic and felt judged by protestors at the front gate.
“I was referred to as a murderer and the men gave me really awful looks and shook their heads before going into obvious praying,” she said.
“It made me very angry and physically distressed.
“Even once we had sat inside, just knowing they were out there was very unnerving for me.”
Two private sexual and reproductive health clinics performed 83 per cent of the 7816 abortions in WA in 2018.
Right To Life Association of Western Australia president Steve Klomp said pro-life supporters have been conducting peaceful prayer vigils outside these clinics for the past two decades to save children.
“This proposed legislation is a sham, and we have to recognise this is an attack on Christianity. It certainly doesn’t help any women.”
In the Department of Health’s report, 600 submissions stated the presence of demonstrators made already vulnerable women even more emotionally distraught.
Another clinic, Sexual Health Quarters, said in its submission: “Some of our clients are frightened protestors will ignore their right to privacy and confidentiality and will be shamed in their communities by accessing a legal healthcare option.”
Marie Stopes WA’s submission said if women cancel their appointments, there was an increased risk they may resort to unsafe abortion options.
Mrs Williams said this Bill would remove the barrier to access created by anti-abortion demonstrators, strengthening women’s rights across the board.
Currently, under the Public Order in Streets Act 1984, the WA Police provide permits to hold public processions, and under the Criminal Investigations Act 2006, officers can issue Move On Orders to anyone breaching the peace, committing an offence, or hindering the public.
Australian Christian Lobby director Peter Abetz said there was no rational reason for imposing the zones as the police already had the power to address any intimidation or harassment.
“The people who conduct the prayer vigils have always conducted themselves in an exemplary manner,” he said.
As there is currently no offence for demonstrators breaching their permit conditions, WA Police media officer Susan Usher said the police do not keep figures on this topic.
However, Nanyara Clinic medical secretary Debbie Whiting said prior to Covid-19, the clinic called the police at least once a week about protesters breaking their permits by approaching clients.
“These girls have had a hard-enough decision to make, then they are shamed at our front door,” she said.
Miss Whiting mentioned staff at these clinics also face the demonstrators’ judgement.
“They throw holy water over our fence, tell us we work at the altar of the devil and look at us like we’re evil.
“The safe access zones can’t come soon enough. Just get it over with and get them out and away from us.”